I first attended the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day in 1986. My friend Jerry Harrington who ran (and still does) the Tivoli Art House Cinema in Kansas City where I then lived, suggested we go. The Festival was still relatively new but had a good word of mouth, so why not? We drove overnight and in the early morning ascended through some of the most picturesque scenery in the West to the tiny town of Telluride. The once hectic silver mining town had fallen upon hard times until it came up with the novel idea of turning itself into a “festival town” with bluegrass and other events being held almost weekly in the summer and winter months. The Film Festival was just one of many. That weekend I saw The Sacrifice, the very last film made by the then just-deceased Russian master Tarkovsky, the very first showing of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which at the time was unlike anything I had ever seen, and Seize the Day, a film based on Saul Bellow’s novella, starring comedians Jerry Stiller and Robin Williams, who regaled us with hilarious stories on the street outside the theater. I did not know it then, but I had hit on the Telluride “brand”: a combination of films by masters of the art, unknown films that go on to become heralded for a variety of reasons, and an opportunity to mingle with stars. I even took a scary ride in a T-bar up the mountains to a party with the celebs. I loved it but did not return till 1999, when I was delighted to discover that the festival had not changed, except that the T-bar had been replaced by an enclosed gondola and the party was now for pass holders only. I have been back every year since. Telluride is so addictive that people notch up their years at the festival as matters of pride. This was my 16th.
In 2004 I began taking a class from UCSB on my yearly Telluride pilgrimage. We started with a handful. This year the class hit a new high: 17 students — and all of them loved it. Why did I pick to take my students to Telluride over all the other Festivals in the country? Part of it is practical: It takes place over a holiday weekend so they would not have to miss other classes, and offers a limited but broad selection of films, free programs, discussions, and seminars. As I tell my students, it is like having “three film courses in one weekend.” Actually, it is more like film camp. But most of all, the atmosphere is friendly. Everyone loves film and is happy to share their ideas and thoughts with you, from the stars to the ordinary person in the street. This year my students got to chat with Bruce Dern, the star of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, who turned out to be a wonderful raconteur and football aficionado. At one panel discussion we attended, and despite the presence of some witty folk, like Jason Reitman, only Dern moved the audience to applaud his every remark. Later, I stood beside him while he chatted with a young man about college football with the same passion that he chatted about his work with Hal Ashby and Alfred Hitchcock.
Telluride lived up to its reputation and my students had their fill of photo op moments: Michael Moore and Michael Fassbinder were only too happy to pose with them, and even reluctant Ralph Fiennes could not escape the charms of a UCSB film buff. Only Brad Pitt proved elusive, though in one film when someone described a young man as handsome, but “no Brad Pitt,” the audience laughed knowing he was out there somewhere among us.
Before the trip, we had met to discuss how to navigate the festival, not to worry about not having a pass (too expensive and even some pass holders can’t get in to everything) to the size of the theaters, which can vary from the brand new Werner Herzog Theater, named after the director who attends annually to the tiny La Pierre (50 seats) to the Sheridan Opera House (yes, Telluride in its heyday had one) to the relatively large Chuck Jones up in Mountain Village, a section recently added to accommodate the influx of skiers who come to town in the winter. At first, I was wary of the location as most of the “action” takes place in the town, but the students informed me that they love riding down the gondolas as they never knew who they would encounter, be they directors, actors, or film buffs of some sort.
Our first stop in Telluride was the large tent known as “Brigadoon” where we picked up the programs and perused the schedule. Telluride is famous for not announcing its selections till the day it opens. People come on trust and they are rarely disappointed. This year was no exception. Then it was off to a specially arranged lecture with people involved with the festival. Part of the uniqueness of Telluride is its education component. (They have a very competitive Student Symposium for 40 students.) To my surprise, UCSB is the only university to offer this type of class, so when they found I brought a group of students every year, they contacted me to ask how they could enhance my students’ experience. In the years since, we have had lectures by Laura Linney (whose husband hails from Telluride, and who she met there when she was an honoree), documentarian Ken Burns, and curator Peter Sellars.
Telluride audiences are renowned for their ability to sniff out the next big movie. Previous classes had picked The King’s Speech, Juno, and Slumdog Millionaire, when the audience got up and danced along with the credits. This year’s group got into the act as well. My students felt that they had picked this year’s Best Picture with 12 Years A Slave, though I thought the honor should go to Roots Redux. Then again, everyone has an opinion. Also getting high praise was Jason Reitman’s change of pace, Labor Day, a modern day fairy tale, which had us all weeping at its romantic coda.
They also could sniff a dog when they saw one. A bomb at Telluride never recovers — anyone remember Fur with Nicole Kidman? This year’s DOAs were Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, as well as Philippe Claudel’s French movie Before the Winter Chill, which kept its “secrets” under its wraps.
Nothing warms the cockles of one’s heart more than to see students broaden their horizons and repertoire. Off they trotted to see Errol Morris’ doc on Donald Rumsfeld The Unknown Known, and another on filmmaker John Milius, hardly their normal fare. They praised unknown Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra with his first effort, The Lunchbox, which pleased me, though its bittersweet story with Chekhovian undertones worried me as being a little too sophisticated for their taste.
One student saw the French lesbian (and Palme D’or) film Blue is the Warmest Color twice, not because of its ntimate sex scene, but because at three hours it never seemed a moment too long. Imagine giving six hours of your life to a film — now that’s dedication to the art.
They also came to understand that standing in line only to be shut out was indeed part of the charm of Telluride. We had to content ourselves to listening to a crowd outside a showing of Israeli filmmaker Yuval Adler’s Bethlehem firing questions at him ‘til they were shooed away by the ushers and adjourned to a nearby bar! When I couldn’t get into some of the more popular hits, like Prisoners or Salinger, I went to some of the free programs (regular movies are $25) and saw Jodorowosky’s Dune and Natan, about a French Jew who helped found French cinema and ended up dying in Auschwitz. I only had time for Part One of Burning Bush, Agnieska Holland’s tribute to Czech student Jan Palach, and I can’t wait to see the final three hours. I know that Roger Durling, director of our own SBIFF, whose path I crossed several times that weekend, personally crams in 30 films, but my students are only required to see ten programs and write on six. Most saw 14. Between us we covered over 35 programs. They ignored the luxurious condo I got them and the parties they could have enjoyed to get up at 7 a.m. and catch screenings til 2 a.m. By Monday’s end, they were like tourists in Florence, caught up in the fever to see every Giotto and fresco they could.
If I have whetted your appetite, I wish I could take you but first you have to enroll in UCSB.
Mashey Bernstein teaches in the Writing Program and moonlights in Film and Media Studies at UCSB. He also curates Kolnoa, the Israeli section of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.